1) An utterance is a response to previous utterances:

The claim by such linguists as Saussure (followed by Chomsky, of course) that the single sentence, with all its individuality and creativity, can be regarded as a completely free combination of forms of language, is not, Bakhtin (1986, p.81) feels, true of utterances. Actual utterances must take into account the (already linguistically shaped) context into which they are directed. Thus for him:


“Any concrete utterance is a link in the chain of speech communication of a particular sphere. The very boundaries of the utterance are determined by a change of speech subjects. Utterances are not indifferent to one another, and are not self-sufficient; they are aware of and mutually reflect one another... Every utterance must be regarded as primarily a response to preceding utterances of the given sphere (we understand the word ‘response’ here in the broadest sense). Each utterance refutes affirms, supplements, and relies upon the others, presupposes them to be known, and somehow takes them into account... Therefore, each kind of utterance is filled with various kinds of responsive reactions to other utterances of the given sphere of speech communication” (Bakhtin, 1986, p.91).

In other words, an utterance has at least these four basic properties: 1) boundaries; 2) responsivity or dialogicality; 3) finalization; and 4) generic form.

              What is meant by the first two properties 1) and 2) is obvious from the quote. Number three 3) “finalization” is made clear in the following quote:


“This change [of speaking subjects] can only take place because the speaker has said (or written) everything he wishes to say at a particular moment or under particular circumstances. When hearing or reading, we clearly sense the end of the utterance, as if we hear the speaker’s concluding dixi. This finalization is specific and is determined by specific criteria” (1986, p.76).

The final property is described further in the next section. The choice of speech genre “is determined by the specific nature of the given sphere of speech communication, semantic (thematic) considerations, the concrete situation of the speech communication, the personal composition of its participants, and so on” (1986, p.78).

2) Speech genres:

Where, by the different spheres in which we communicate, Bakhtin means nothing more than, say, our family, our work, in banks and post offices, in official documents, our intimate relations, and so on. All the spheres which, even before we come on the scene, are maintained in existence by an ongoing communicative process of a particular kind - that is what gives them their particular character as the spheres they are. Thus, if we also are to participate in them, then we must use the appropriate speech genre, the appropriate ways of talking, else those who are already members will not treat us as competent participants, as people able to maintain such institutions by reproducing them in our actions.

              What Bakhtin calls a “genre”, when “understood as a way of seeing, is,” as Morson and Emerson (1990, p.282) say, “best described neither as a ‘form’ (in the usual sense) nor as an ideology (which could be phrased as a set of tenets) but as a ‘form-shaping’ ideology’ - a special kind of creative activity embodying a specific sense of experience.”

3) Voices: Responsivity = answerability + addressivity

What is constituted in the use of a particular speech genre is, among many other aspects of a ongoing social ‘world’, a particular set of interdependently related, but continually changing speech ‘positions’, positions which on the one hand allow the use of various voices - in which we are answerable for the our ‘position’ - and on the other, which permit speakers certain forms of addressivity, aimed at certain addressees - it is in their allowing and permitting of some speech forms and their sanctioning of others, that institutions constituted by particular speech genres are repaired and maintained. For example, in an educational institution, I may speak with the voice of a teacher, a pupil, a researcher, a librarian, an administrator, and so on - and neither administrators, nor librarians, nor pupils, are not supposed to tell teachers how or what to teach; within each department, among the teachers within it, a particular speech genre will have currency also, and so on. Where the point to emphasize is how, in the never ending flow of communication in which this form of life is sustained, every utterance is a rejoinder in some way to previous utterances.

4) Utterances also expected to produce a response:

Listening too must be responsive, in that listeners must be preparing themselves to respond to what they are hearing. Indeed,

“the speaker does not expect passive understanding that, so to speak, only duplicates his or her own idea in someone else’s mind (as in Saussure’s model of linguistic communication mentioned above). Rather, the speaker talks with an expectation of a response, agreement, sympathy, objection, execution, and so forth (with various speech genres presupposing various integral orientations and speech plans on the part of speakers or writers)” (Bakhtin, 1986, p.69).

In other words, the utterance is not a conventional unit, like the sentence (in Saussure’s or Chomsky’s syntactical sense), but a real unit, in the sense that it marks out the boundaries of in the speech flow between different ‘voices’.

5) The unit of speech is not the sentence:

This is not the case with sentences: “...the boundaries of the sentence as a unit of language are never determined by a change of speaking subjects” (Bakhtin, 1986, p.72).


“The first and foremost criterion for the finalization of an utterance is the possibility of responding to it or, more precisely and broadly, of assuming a responsive attitude to it (for example, executing an order)” (Bakhtin, 1986, p.76).

The trouble with the sentence is that has no capacity to determine directly the responsive position of the other speaker; that is, it cannot evoke a response. The sentence as a language unit is only grammatical, not ethical in nature” (Bakhtin, 1986, p.74).

6) One’s own and other voices:

This is not to say, however, that when one talks in this way, one’s speech is wholly one’s own, for, in the very nature of speech genres, they preexist the individual; furthermore, not all are equally conducive to reflecting the individuality of the speaker. As Bakhtin points out, there are no ‘neutral’ words and forms; they have all at one time or another belonged to, and been used by others, and carry with them the traces of those uses:


“A word (or in general any sign) is interindividual. Everything that is said, expressed, is located outside the ‘soul’ of the speaker and does not belong only to him [or her]. The word cannot be assigned to a single speaker. The author (speaker) has his own inalienable right to the word, but the listener has his rights, and those whose voices are heard in the word before the author comes upon it also have their rights (after all, there are no words that belong to no one)” (Bakhtin, 1986, pp.121-122).

Indeed, as he adds later, a word becomes ‘one’s own’:


“... only when the speaker populates it with his own intentions, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention. Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language (it is not, after all, out of a dictionary that the speaker gets his words!), but rather it exists in other people’s mouths, in other people’s contexts, serving other people’s intentions: it is from there that one must take the word, and make it one’s own” (pp.293-4).

7) Hence speaking is an ethical act:

In their biography of Bakhtin, Clark and Holquist (1984) discuss a number of early, incomplete texts of Bakhtin’s - written between 1918 and 1924 - to which they assign the title The Architectonics of Answerability. In these early texts, Bakhtin outlined a concern with the ethics of everyday life activities which he never ceased to pursue throughout his whole career: His concern was not with the end product of an action, with what it results in, but with the “ethical deed in its making” (p.63), with how in the process of authoring, i.e., in crafting the complex, time-space relations between self and others, the self is also crafted. Where, what it is which makes a person as a ‘me’ unique, is the unique place or position I occupy in existence, and the degree to which, as already mentioned above, I am answerable for that position to the others around me. As Clark and Holquist (1984, pp.67-8) put it:


“In Bakhtin, the difference between humans and other forms of life is a form of authorship, since the means by which a specific ratio of self-to-other responsibility is achieved in any given action - a deed being understood as an answer - comes about as the result of efforts by the self to shape a meaning out of the encounter between them. What the self is answerable to is the social environment; what the self is answerable for is the authorship of its responses. The self creates itself in crafting an architectonic relation between the unique locus of life activity and the constantly changing natural and social environment which surrounds it. This is the meaning of Bakhtin’s dictum that the self is an act of grace, a gift of the other.”

But, it must be added that (as we have seen above), if we owe our being to how we are addressed, how I address the others around me in my ‘authoring’ of myself also raises ethical questions - for it is a part of the ethics of authoring that I must not in making my own being violate the being of others. How, if the others around me are unique beings whose nature cannot be predicted, can this be managed?

8) Ethics at the point of action (speaking):

It can only be managed at the point of action, so to speak, during the actual execution of the communicative act, the fashioning of an utterance. As we have already seen above, he rejects a formal, linguistic analyses in terms of sentences - an approach which seems to suggest that there must be a stage of passive, formal, nonresponsive understanding in the life of utterances (in terms of the sentence-syntax), before they are perceived as being in a context. Whereas, what matters for actual speakers, Bakhtin feels, is not that normatively identical forms exist in the ‘tool-box’ of language - just as normatively identical tools exist in the actual tool-boxes of carpenters, say - but that in different particular contexts (like the carpenter’s tools), such forms can be put to use in creative and novel ways. Thus:


“What the speaker values is not that aspect of the form which is invariably identical in all instances of its usage, despite the nature of those instances, but that aspect of the linguistic form because of which it can figure in the given, concrete context, because of which it becomes a sign adequate to the conditions of the given, concrete situation. We can express it this way: what is important for the speaker about the linguistic form is not that it is a stable and always self-equivalent signal, but that it is an always changeable and adaptable sign” (Volosinov, 1973, p.68).

9) Understanding in order to respond:

But if this is the case, how is a listener to understand what the speaker means? Doesn’t the listener first have to recognize the form used in order to understand its meaning? No, not at all. From a practical-moral point of view, what is involved in ‘making sense’ of words used in particular concrete communicative contexts, amounts, says Volosinov (1973, p.68), “to understanding [a word’s] novelty and not to recognizing its identity.” Indeed, if we go along with Bakhtin and regard every utterance as primarily a response to preceding utterances, then the listener’s task (in understanding) is that of formulating what his or her response to a speaker’s utterance should be - they must decide whether they agree with it or want to reject it; whether they must comply with it; act upon it; or are insulted by it; and so on. In short: The listener’s two-part task is i) to grasp how the speaker’s (‘tool’-like) use of words has, so to speak, ‘moved’ or ‘repositioned’ him or her in the changing, intralinguistically specified situation between them, in order next ii) to ‘answer’ for their new position within it.


“The fact is that when the listener perceives and understands the meaning (the language meaning) of speech, he simultaneously takes an active, responsive attitude toward it. He either agrees or disagrees with it (completely or partially), augments it, applies it, prepares for its execution, and so on. And the listener adopts this responsive attiude for the entire duration of the process of listening and understanding...” (Bakhtin, 1986, p.68).


“To understand another person’s utterance means to orient yourself with respect to it, to find a proepr place for it in the corresponding context. For each word of the utterance that we are in the process of understanding, we, as it were, lay down a set of our own answering words. The greater their number and weight, the deeper and more substantial our understanding will be... Any true understanding is dialogic in nature. Understanding is to utterance as one line of a dialogue is to the next. Understanding strives to match the speaker’s word with a counter word. Only in understanding a word in a foreign tongue is the attempt made to match it with the ‘same’ word in one’s own language” (mpl, p.102).

10) Checking an understanding for its appropriateness:

In this view then, the psychological ‘flow’ or ‘movement’ of dialogic speech consists in a sequence of utterances, where the boundaries of each particular utterance are determined by a change of speakers. And where each speaker in their utterances, in the ‘movement’ between their sense of what they want to achieve in their utterance and their use of particular words, attempts to ‘successively develop’ (Vygotsky) suitable expressions. But how is this possible? How can an expression be developmentally formulated in a more or less routine way, word by word, and checked in the course of its ‘construction’ for its appropriateness? Because, argues Bakhtin (1986, p.88):


“Neutral dictionary definitions of the words of a language ensure their common features and guarantee that all speakers of a given language will understand one another, but the use of words in live speech communication is always individual and contextual in nature. Therefore, one can say that any word exists for the speaker in three aspects: as a neutral word of a language, belonging to nobody; as an other’s word, which belongs to another person and is filled with echoes of the other’s utterance; and finally, as my word, for, since I am dealing with it in a particular situation, with a particular speech plan, it is already imbued with my expression. In both the latter aspects, the word is expressive, but, we repeat, this expression does not inhere in the word itself. It originates at the point of contact between the word and actual reality, under the conditions of that real situation articulated by the individual utterance. In this case the word appears as an expression of some evaluative position of an individual person...”

It is in a speaker’s particular use of a particular word at a particular point in time - like, say, the carpenter’s particular use of a chisel stroke to slice off a wood sliver at a particular point in a piece of joinery - that the speaker can sense what its use achieves in the construction desired. To repeat Bakhtin’s comments above, a word’s meaning does not inhere in the word itself, but originates at the point of contact between the words used, and the ‘movements’ they achieve in the conditions of their use.

11) In the ‘combat zone of the word’:

Thus also, it is precisely here, in this zone of uncertainty as to who can do what in the construction of a word’s significance, at the point of contact between my creative use of it in an attempt to reshape the social reality between myself and another, that I can exert my power, and the other can exert theirs. It is in what Holquist (1983, p.307) very aptly calls “the combat zone of the word,” that the struggle over the question of the speaker’s rights and privileges compared with those of the listener takes place. And the importance of these rights and duties should not be underestimated, for even apparently simple situations, objects, events, states of affairs, remain in principle enigmatic and undetermined as social realities until they are talked about - where what is enigmatic is essentially the question: who should live in whose reality?

12) Chronotopes (time-spaces):

Realities are known by Bakhtin in terms of the time-spaces (or chronotopes) they constitute. To give an example: He discusses ancient Greek romantic novels. I shall draw from what he says about novels of the third period he discusses, what he calls the biographical novel. Whereas in earlier Greek writing, events took place in “an alien world of adventure-time,” such that they lay outside of the biographical time of the heroes involved, and changed nothing in their lives - it is a time that left no traces. In later novels, they took place in a mixture of adventure-time with everyday time, where the transformational events occurring in the novel - e.g., Lucius’ metamorphosis (in Apuleius’s Golden Ass) into an ass - provided a method for portraying the whole of an individual’s life in its more important moments of crisis: for showing how an individual becomes other than he was - these are times which do leave a trace. In discussing the different kinds of identity generated by these two genres, Bakhtin has this to say: That first, we must take into account that, as distinct from all classical genres of ancient literature, the image of human beings in these novels is of people as individuals, as private persons. They are not parts of a social whole. This gives rise to problems. For this private and isolated person in the Greek romance


“often behaves, on the surface, like a public man, and precisely the public man of the rhetorical and historical genres. He delivers long speeches that are rhetorically structured and in which he seeks to enlighten us with the private and intimate details of his love life, his exploits and adventure - but all in the form of a public accounting” (pp.108-9).

Thus, in this chronotope (time-space representation), the unity of the human being is characterized precisely by what is rhetorical and juridical in it.

              Turning now to the second genre - in which Lucius as an ass has the chance to spy upon the inner, intimate details of much of Greek life - Bakhtin has this to say:


“The everyday life that Lucius observes and studies is an exclusively personal and private life. By its very nature there can be nothing public about it. All its events are the personal affairs of isolated people... By its very nature this private life does not create a place for the contemplative man, for that ‘third person’ who might be in a position to mediate upon this life, to judge and evaluate it... Public life adopts the most varied means for making itself public and accounting for itself (as does its literature). Therefore, the particular positioning of a person (a ‘third person’) presents no special problem... But when the private individual and private life enter literature (in the Hellenistic era) these problems inevitably were bound to arise. A contradiction developed between the public nature of the literary form and the private nature of its content... The quintessentially private life that entered the novel at this time was, by its very nature as opposed to public life, closed. In essence one could only spy and eavesdrop on it” (pp.122-3).

The biographical novel is the genre which, to an extent, solved this problem.

              The essence of biographical-time, is the fashioning of a form of individual who passes through the course of a whole life. As the development of this genre is much more multiform than the other two, I will limit my comments to just one of its forms, what Bakhtin calls the rhetorical autobiography - typified in the ‘encomium’, the civic funeral or memorial speech. It is in such forms as these, suggests Bakhtin, in which people gave a public account either of others or themselves, that the self-consciousness of the Greek individual originated. Here, there was at first


“no internal man, no ‘man for himself’ (I for myself), nor any individualized approach to one’s own self. An individual’s unity and his elf-consciousness were exclusively public. Man was completely on the surface, in the most literal sense of the word” (p.133).

The concept of silent thought first only appeared with the mystics, and this concept had its roots in the Orient; even in Plato, the process of thought - conceived of as a ‘conversation with oneself’ - did not entail any special relationship with oneself, says Bakhtin (p.134), “conversation with one’s own self turns directly into conversation with someone else, without a hint of boundaries between the two.” So: what was the origin of what one might call, an ‘internal’ self-consciousness?

13) (Foucault) ‘Testability’ and the play of ‘questions and answers’ in conversation:

Foucault (1986, pp.381-2):


“In the serious play of questions and answers, in the work of reciprocal elucidation, the rights of each person are in some sense immanent in the discussion. they depend only on the dialogue situation. The person asking the questions is merely exercising the right that has been given him: to remain unconvinced, to perceive a contradiction, to require more information, to emphasize different postulates, to point out faulty reasoning, etc. As for the person answering the questions, he too exercises a right that does not go beyond the discussion itself; by the logic of his own discourse he is tied to what he has said earlier, and by the acceptance of dialogue he is tied to the questioning of the other. Questions and answers depend upon a game - a game that is at once pleasant and difficult - in which each of the two partners takes pains to use only the rights given him by the other and by the accepted form of dialogue.

The polemicist, on the other hand, proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question... The polemicist relies upon a legitimacy that his adversary is by definition denied.”

              It is the very universality of truth-claims which makes them vulnerable to challenge - ‘That does not hold here!’ It is only because assertions make demands (for their intelligibility) on the assent of others, and cannot - as much modern philosophy has supposed - be validated by a method aimed at securing certainty for the individualistically operating scientist, that they are open to challenge. It is not truth itself which is linked to power, but truth-claims which cn not be upheld unless they are shielded from critical probing by manipulation and other forms of power-coercion.

14) The ‘management’ of social actions:

i. Quotes from C.W. Mills:


“The differing reasons men give for their actions are not themselves without reasons” - Mills “Situated actions and vocabularies of motive.”


“Motives are imputed or avowed as answers to questions interrupting acts or programs. Motives are words [‘accounts’]. Generically, to what do they refer? They do not denote any elements ‘in’ individuals. They stand for anticipated situational consequences of questioned conduct [i.e., the linguistically formulated, anticipated consequences, in the current intralinguistic ‘reality’].”


“As a word [as an account], a motive tends to be one which is to the actor and the other members of a situation an unquestioned [and unquestionable] answer to questions concerning social and lingual conduct. A stable motive is an ultimate in justificatory conversation.”

ii. Austin’s concern was with the way in which ‘breakdowns’ might reveal the constraints upon actions, and the constraints reveal the machinery of action:


“.. to examine excuses is to examine cases where there has been some abnormality or failure: and as so often, the abnormal will throw light on the normal, will help us to penetrate the blinding veil of ease and obviousness that hides the mechanism of the nature successful act” (pp.179-80).

The ‘logistics’ or ‘management’ of action:


“In the course of actually doing these things (getting weaving [for instance]) we have to pay (some) attention to what we are doing and to take (some) care to guard against (likely) dangers: we may need to use judgment or tact: we must exercise sufficient control over our bodily parts: and so on. In attention, carelessness, errors of judgement, tactlessness, clumsiness, all these and others are ills (with attendant excuses) which affect one specific stage in the machinery of action, the executive stage, to stage where we muff it. But there are many other departments in the business too, each of which is to be traced and mapped through its cluster of verbs and adverbs. Obviously there are departments of intelligence and planning, of decision and resolve, and so on...” (p.193).


-             justifications and excuses: “In the one defence, briefly, we accept responsibility but deny that it was bad: in the other, we admit that it was bad but don’t accept full, or even any, responsibility” (p.176).


Bakhtin, M.M. (1981) The Dialogical Imagination. Edited by M.

              Holquist, trans. by C. Emerson and M. Holquist. Austin, Tx:

              University of Texas Press.

Bakhtin, M.M. (1984) Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Edited and

trans. by Caryl Emerson. Minnieapolis: University of Michigan Press.

Bakhtin, M.M. (1986) Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans.

              by Vern W. McGee. Austin, Tx: University of Texas Press.

Clark, K. and Holquist, M. (1984) Mikhail Bakhtin. Cambridge, MA:

              Harvard Univ. Press.

Volosinov (Bakhtin), V.N. (1986) Marxism and the Philosophy of

              Language. Trans. by L. Matejka and I.R. Titunik. Cambridge,

              Mass.: Harvard University Press.